A Note on the Latin Phrase perfidus Iudaeus
by Br. Alexis Bugnolo
Since the Second World war there has be a worldwide movement to understand the underlying causes of the racist ideology of the Nazi Party. Some writers, confusing their zeal to do all that can be done so as to prevent such horrific crimes happening again with their own personal hatred of Christ and His Church have attacked traditional phrases and terms used by Catholics, asserting that these are the seeds that led to the anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler and his government. Alas, not a few of such authors have been or claim to be Catholics themselves.
Among the terms targeted as "anti-Semitic" is the Latin phrase perfidus Iudaeus, "perfidious Jew", which appears in the most ancient texts of the Roman Rite during Good Friday and among many authors of western Europe, even saints and doctors of the Church, as St. Bonaventure does at the beginning of his "Collationes de septem donis Spiritus Sancti."
This criticism is wholly false. First, the charge that there was a medieval anti-Semitic racism is advanced on shaky grounds. Proponents of this theory often fail to recognize that among the various movements of the human will, hatred, like many others, has many manifestations. As a passion of the will, it is directed against what is perceived as a threat. As a virtue, it is directed against evil; as a vice, it is directed against the good, or in an inordinate manner against what is partly evil and partly good. In short, not all hatred is the same hatred. And thus without identical causes, hatred has no heritage.
To hate a person is quite different than to hate the error or vice in which he is involved. Christ and His Church have always taught hatred of sin and not hatred of sinners. This is the distinguishing characteristic of the New Testament. However, since Christ's promulgation of the Gospel, not everyone has received this good news. If someone freely refuses the Gospel, certainly no sane and impartial judge would lay the responsibility for their actions after such a refusal upon the Church. The Church for Her part has always condemned all forms of hatred which wish, desire, intend or rejoice in the destruction or damnation of one's neighbor: this is in accord with Christ's commandment: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." As such, racial hatred of the Jewish people is a mortal sin, worthy of eternal damnation. That many Europeans have promoted irrational and unjust hatred of various ethnic groups, the Jews included, is a fact of history; however, to be honest, every historian must recognize that there have been many different sponsoring groups and differing reasons motivating it.
Christ is a Jew, the Blessed Virgin Mary, His ever-Virgin Mother is a Jewess. The Apostles who founded the Catholic Church are Jews, as well as many of Her greatest saints. In this sense, the word "Jew" is being used in an ethnic or racial sense. However this is not the sense used by the Catholic Church in Her liturgy, nor of the Saints and Doctors of the Church, when they speak of the perfidus Iudaeus. In Latin, Iudaeus has various meanings. Originally it meant an inhabitant or citizen of the province of Judea (political sense). By extension, since this region was nearly wholly occupied by descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, this term also referred to a racial or ethnic category. Since this people also distinguished themselves by their religious customs, it also obtained a religious sense.
As a term reflecting religious adherence to the Law after the coming of Christ, St. John the Evangelist, in his Gospel, uses the Greek equivalent of Iudaeus to refer to his own countrymen and kinsmen, who rejected Christ. The other New Testament writers do the same. Following the Apostles the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the Saints and nearly all ecclesiastical writers for the next 1900 years employ the term Iudaeus in this sense.
Hence it is that the Traditional Roman Rite and saints such as St. Bonaventure speak of the perfidus Iudaeus. Frequently citing scripture and reliving the events of Christ's life, the Church adopted a dramatic style in which these happenings were retold as present events. The rejection of the Jewish Messiah by the Jews was thus aptly described in the liturgy and ecclesiastical texts as an act of treachery and disbelief. The term perfidus Iudaeus thus refers properly, in a Catholic context, to the individual, who adopting or retaining the Law and its observances after the Ascension of Christ, knowingly and without reason or justice rejects Christ's claims to be the Son of God. Typically, in the liturgy this individual is associated with the crowd of citizenry from Jerusalem, who in fact shouted, "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children" (Matthew 27:25). It is noteworthy that the Jewish tax-collector, Matthew, was the one to record these historic words for posterity). In this manner the term has only a religious sense in the context of Catholic liturgy and theology.
With the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob slain by the Romans at the request of the religious representatives of the Jewish People and with the consent of the crowds of Jerusalem, in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Jewish prophets from Moses to Malachi and of Christ Himself, it was not surprising that the Catholic Church, which was founded by the direct, personal command of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ, would retain the memory of this and re-echo the truth of these events to all the world.
That the Jewish Nation endures to this day the effects of the sin of their forbearers, especially of the rabbis, who to cement their rejection of their own Messiah, excluded inspired books of the Old Testament (Wisdom, Maccabees, etc.), and composed over the centuries a commentary on the Law, the Talmud, which reinterpreted the accepted meaning of the Moses and the Prophets in an anti-Christian manner, is an undoubted fact, testified to by the history and events of the last 2000 years: they remain without prophets, revelation, without a Temple, without any possibility of fulfilling the proscriptions of the Law. Many Jews have fallen into superstition and diabolism, through the practices of the kabbalah: belief in the non-existence or non-eternity of Hell, of reincarnation, in the ontological superiority of the racial Jew to the non-Jew, are commonplace. To be a Jew today, for a Jew, is primarily a genealogic or ethnic classification; secondarily a religious one. Hence the common misunderstanding of the Catholic Church's use of the term "Jew", particularly by secular Jews today.
If the Church and Her representatives would ever forget the sin of the Jewish People of old, who rejected their own Messiah, it would be a most tragic offense against His brethren according to the flesh. Moreover, it is the very central dogma of Christianity, that the God of Israel became a Jew to save both Jew and Gentile. Thus, to exclude the Jewish People from salvation would be an extreme offence against the Divine Mercy. And since salvation is offered to those who both believe in the Messiah and repent of their sins; the memory and fact of this unique sin of the Jewish People is an integral and inalienable part of the heritage of salvation which belongs to both them and to the Church: for unless the Jewish people recognize that they have indeed rejected their own Messiah, how will they every come to believe in Him and be saved? For there is no salvation except in the name Yeshua the Messiah (Jesus Christ), and in His Church, the Catholic Church.
Hence it is that the Latin phrase "perfidus Iudaeus", found in the Good Friday liturgy of the Missale Romanum of Pope St. Pius V, is an inalienable and just part of Catholic liturgy, theology, and ecclesiastical writings, and its proper use a work of charity, justice and mercy to the Jewish people. On the other hand, to transfer this proper meaning to racial categories would be both heretical and diabolic. It is important, therefore, for all Catholics that the correct meaning of this term be retained and understood. If some catholics have altered this term to racial categories or abandoned it out of irenicism, they have justly merited to be condemned by all the faithful and especially by the Pope.